It was one of those mid-winter days where the sun begins to coagulate in the sky mid-afternoon, turning the sky to sickly pallor before finishing in a bruise of black by 4pm. Beth began to notice this as she was finishing her lunch-time shift in the restaurant – the absurdity of the time of year where people consumed food endlessly into the day, clutching comfort where they could get it.
She threaded between the tables under the incessant stare of artificial orange light and the twisted paraphernalia one may manage to associate with Italy when under the influence of alcohol. Plates were stone cold in her hands as she lifted away the finished meal from the table of an elderly couple – a meal that looked barely different from when she had served it. The strange empty eyes of the old man, the shrunken skin hanging against the jaw, made her want to cry. A young couple argued at an adjacent table, the clockwork gesticulations of their hands seemingly attempting to compensate for empty words – such horrible desperate gestures! Gestures drawn by thick sluggish pulses of blood and wine mulching in the veins like a sickness.
She had had enough. Enough of the forced façade people had fastened to their faces – the whole room seemingly an exhibition of synthetic sympathy. It made her sick! Sick as she heard the regular Click, click, click – from the wall-clock perhaps, or the sharp shocks of knife in the kitchen, splitting the heads from spring onions in a bitter execution. Only ten minutes left. Damp hands shook in the fold of her apron.
Ten minutes of waiting. She wanted to open her mouth and ask them – what am I actually waiting for? Am I waiting for you to fill my life with some menial activity so I can feel money cold in my palm and go home to return again? Am I waiting for you? Am I waiting to say the anticipated words at anticipated times and mirror your gesticulations so you feel safe? Do you want me to wait, dripping with cordiality?
Seething, she cleared away the detritus from the corner table – the table where a young woman had sat by herself all evening, eating with painstaking slowness like a kind of sacrilege, poised like she had been preserved amidst the strange sour smell of vinegar. Beth remembered how the red wine had stained the woman’s lips – appearing, from a distance, to be a slick incision scoring between pale cheeks. The cutlery was eerily clean. Beth picked up a napkin smeared damp with mascara, crumpling it into the bin. She wondered why people visited restaurants in that grand old exhibition of public life, as if affirming that they had a kind of self-consciousness, operated like others. For everyone seemed so unhappy.
A birthday cake coated in candles emerged from the back – it seemed to drip flames, circulating the restaurant interior. The illuminated boast – look who’s survived another year! Manic applause and laughter, horribly cavernous smiles to cover the unrepentant sadness which slid through the blood as coarse as salt.
Those who looked especially unhappy were those who would usually ask for their meat ‘rare’ – as if they envied some mistaken form of exclusivity, desired some strange sense of identification. What of the identity of flesh and blood and grease and sweat?
Very little. Beth supported soiled plates against her chest like a porcelain doll, taking them mechanically to the back of the restaurant where a boy, not much older than herself, would clean them. It was strange how so few seemed to think about his task – his hands against the saliva of speech, coursing away those empty words and teeth-marks. His fingers flexed in the water is as if stirring a vat. Beth turned and choked her apron against the whitewash in its own noose. She had 4pm leave to return by 6pm. There was no comment from anyone – just table after table of greying skin like some dreadful metaphorical tapestry, the clash of glass being scoured, the choking gasp of hot oil left too long in the pan, lobsters screaming.
Outside, the sky was still slightly flecked with cobalt and instead of walking, she ran.
The restaurant was some kind of highly-idolised, rural composition for those who had convinced themselves they were passionate about location, having lost self-location long ago. For those couples with cavernous cars they could use to construct some idea of identity – parked row after row like new-shined coffins. Beth crossed behind the restaurant over a stile and into a field. The grass cast against her legs, almost serpentine, an endless dark mass in the dying light opened up languorously like liquid. Silence was treasured, and here it glistened as it seemed to sink her to the ground, her hands crystalline with dewdrops as she lowered her head onto the earth.
Staring upwards, the magnificent expanse of sky domed like an arched spine. How everything pulsed and throbbed – these terrible organs of the world! All flashing lights and loss and screams! The blood pounding through her ears, the occasional click of the pheasant, the throbbing lungs crackling as if sifting ice from the chill air. She hated herself – for having eighteen years of experience and still not knowing why she felt such inerasable sadness, a sadness which would smite as if sewn through tissue.
Her body lay heavily whilst the ground seemed to force upwards, like in her suspension she was amidst some terrible conflict which strived to crack her ribs apart. Her tongue trilled against her teeth as if nervous in the hiatus, anticipating hysteria. For the World cannot cope with those who stop, that was what she told herself as her work clothes became saturated against her back, beyond any form of identification, the body clotted inside a single skin. Cocoon-like, a chrysalis. Tears trembled like globes to decorate the cheeks. It was as if a weight brooded in each half-open palm, fixed to the vague texture of the earth usually scored only by footfalls and floodlights.
The stars peered through the black bandage of the sky like poorly shrouded puncture wounds. For the whole thing was rotten, she knew. Her mouth opened in a half-cry as if to taste the sudden seep of silence, the hot salt of the advancing evening in which people may hold each other, some image, anything to flee like desperate animals the immeasurable pulse of loneliness which continuously creeps over unassuming flesh.
She thought of the cries in the restaurant, the exclamative assertions announcing ‘I’m so happy!’. How bitterly she laughed, how she laughed as she felt something so cold and beautiful against her palm, the arms of the night flexing towards her mouth. It could have been hours, she let the earth cradle her like a corpse. There was an annihilating cold, the world a globe beneath the sad plinth of her spine.
A group of cows huddled softly, gently in one corner of the field, their long eyelashes brushing the bottom lids with an eerie regularity, keeping their gaze cautiously, almost tenderly.
Beth rose, for she knew she had to return the restaurant – to return to the instrumental, the sprockets and springs with the desired femininity of consumer efficiency. Nothing more than a pylon, throbbing a few fields away, dully, numbly. Why had she been given the capacity to feel? Granted the capacity to hurt like some great greased weight? The wood of the stile was a bare bone beneath damp hands, a human skeletal arrangement for some kind of convenience.
She staggered into the restaurant – the thickened air of forfeited joviality swam through her nostrils, the familiar persuasive sedative. The Click, click, click like the strange sideward motions of securing ammunition, lock, trigger. Beth put a hand to her head. To her left, another waitress sat entwined on the bar stool - some ornate ornament, adding to the complimentary furniture.
The fork had stopped halfway to her mouth. The meat seeped, still pink.